It’s the 106th season for the Houston Symphony, and the opening night concert, with guest conductor Leonard Slatkin and guest pianist Yefim Bronfman, was truly spectacular.
After some welcoming remarks by Mayor Sylvester Turner, the Detroit Symphony Music Director Laureate Leonard Slatkin took the stage. The 75-year-old, six-time Grammy Award winner was charming and warm and immediately won over the audience. In particular, he had warm praise for Yoonshin Song, the orchestra’s new concertmaster, who held the same position with the Detroit Symphony under Slatkin’s direction.
In short order, his baton ushered in an all-Russian program that included Glinka's Kamarinskaya, Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien, and Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3.
The word for the night was dynamics. Slatkin found nuance upon nuance and layers of emotion for the Glinka and Tchaikovsky. There were sweeping waltzes and thunderous waves of sound followed by soft, quiet music (at one point Slatkin held a finger to his lips in the universal sign for silence).
Undoubtedly the star was Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. At almost 40 minutes in length, it’s widely considered one of the most technically demanding works for piano; Slatkin called it “finger-busting.”
It’s a significant piece for Bronfman—he performed it at his Carnegie Hall debut in 1987 conducted by Leonard Bernstein. It’s made its way in and out of his repertoire several times.
Bronfman seemed relaxed, even ingenuous, when he first sat at the piano. As the piece progressed, he became a fiend. Focused and masterful, he attacked the concerto’s three movements with vehemence.
And he conquered it completely. He performed with not only physical dexterity, but emotional grace as well. It was an elegant execution.
The orchestra matched Bronfman’s achievement note for note. Under Slatkin’s baton it reached new heights and was dynamic, agile, and deft.
During the repeated curtain calls, both Slatkin and Bronfman seemed reluctant to take the spotlight, each kept insisting the other step forward to take another bow.
While the men in the orchestra were in white tie and tails, Slatkin and Bronfman were in regular business suits. Their less formal attire may have contributed to their relaxed, unpretentious manner on stage, but it’s more likely they’re just guileless and unassuming. Extremely talented, among the best in their respective fields, and unpretentious. It’s a refreshing combination.
Walking out for the encore, Slatkin and Bronfman momentarily changed places, with Slatkin going to the piano and Bronfman stepping up on the conductor’s platform. It was a lighthearted exchange that won a round of laughter from the audience.
After an evening of music by Russian composers, Bronfman chose Chopin’s Etude Opus 10, No. 3 as an encore. It wasn’t the finger-bending Rachmaninoff. Instead it was an intimate moment that transformed the vast Jones Hall into a private studio—just Bronfman, a piano, and a single listener.
Slatkin, seated on the conductor’s platform behind the piano, listened with his eyes closed, as did several members of the orchestra.
The opening night concert included two things we hope to see more of during the Houston Symphony’s 2019-2020 season. One, the orchestra performed brilliantly. And two, the conductor and guest soloist, both rarified talents, seemed warm and approachable.
Slatkin and Bronfman set an exceedingly high bar. If the orchestra can match it, this is going to be a glorious season.